Questions answered

BookspileMany thanks to author Robert J Lloyd for tagging me in this blog post. Robert is a writer of historical crime fiction who it’s been my pleasure to meet on Twitter @robjlloyd and his evocatively named book The Bloodless Boy can be found here. You can find more about Robert on his Facebook page here.

The thing is – I’ve tried a few fellow writers to see if they would like me to tag them to do this quiz – but it’s been around a while and they’ve all done it! If you would like me to tag you in this post so you can answer the questions on your blog just let me know in the comments and I will add you on the bottom.

What am I working on?

Well, I’ve just been editing a collection of my short stories. And next I’m planning to start a new novel. it’s very early in the process so I don’t know what it’s going to be about yet – but I’m excited to be at the start of the journey – who knows where it will lead?

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t really write in a particular genre – unless literary fiction is one. I sometimes think literary fiction can be defined by what it’s not. It isn’t any of the other genres. it’s the general section in the book shop which doesn’t fall under any of the other headings. I would say the great thing about literary fiction is every book is different from the next – each is unique.

It can be about anything, take you anywhere. That’s liberating in some ways for the writer, but a tough task in others – it’s the tyranny of choice – if you can choose to do what you like then it makes doing anything at all more difficult. There is no formula to work to, no pre-set pattern to follow.

Why do I write what I do?

I think you write what you love. I’ve always read literary fiction since I was a teenager and so that’s what I know about and what I write best. When I read a book which excites me I get a huge buzz from it. I can be thinking about the book all day, it can keep me awake at night, it can stay with me long after the last page.

So that’s what I wanted to do with Song of the Sea God, and what I aim to do with the rest of my writing, is create that buzz in other readers. When people tell me I have achieved that for them, left them with thoughts and feelings they carry around with them for a long  time after finishing my book, it makes me very proud. Here’s more about what I love to read

How does your writing process work?

Slowly would be one answer. I’d say it takes me two years to write a book – a year for a first draft and another to rewrite it until I’m happy with what I’ve got. And that’s after I have an idea I’m happy to progress with, one which I think will be worth spending all that time and creative energy on. I would say I start with writing bits and pieces, then develop a more structured plan as I progress. I wrote more about that process here.

Thanks very much for the questions.

Next up on the blog hop is lovely Carol Hedges whose latest book Diamonds and Dust is set in the Victorian era and is doing splendidly. She has a great blog called the Pink Sofa where she will be tackling these questions soon. You can see it here.

Song of the Sea GodDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

 

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Chris Hill-Interview

Thanks to Lynn from Chicago for this fascinating little interview which got to grips with some important aspects of Song of the Sea God.

Lynn M's Blog

Here is an interview I did with author Chris Hill on Song of the Sea God.  He lives in the UK and I sent him these five questions because I was curious about his characters.  I felt it would make a good college discussion because there are so many surprising twists. Here is what how he replied:

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1. Who does John Love represent to you?

Firstly, thank you Lynn for having me along here to your blog, it’s a real pleasure to be here.

Just to put it in context, for people who have not read the book, Song of the Sea God tells the story of a man who comes to a small island off the coast of England and tries to convince the local people he is a god. It’s a story about the nature of religion and what it means to people.

John Love is my…

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A dog’s life

10375114_10152195698608167_2854753701065428763_nI’ve got this dog, his name’s Murphy and he’s a Cockapoo which is half spaniel and half poodle.

He’s nearly five months old and fitting into the family fairly well, though he’s basically daft as a brush – the kids like him, he likes us, I think. He’s going to be bigger that we thought due to my wife, who made the purchasing decision, not realising there was a difference between toy poodles, which are tiny, and miniature poodles, like Murphy’s dad, which are bigger.

She said I didn’t have a clue either, but I pointed out that I hadn’t been doing the research.

I don’t know what they are getting up to at the Large Hadron Collider in Cern either but they would be hard pressed to blame me if it all goes pear-shaped given I had nothing to do with the planning stage.

1010860_463422437123233_4549282047718340273_nAnyhoo, you may be asking, what’s all this got to do with creative writing? Well – here’s the thing. Various writers down the years have claimed that looking after animals helps you as an author.

There was one, I forget most of the details now, including the name and the period, who claimed that the writing life should involve a good deal of animal husbandry, including looking after a cow, sheep and so on – plus tending crops in what amounted to a small-holding. He was basically suggesting a career as a farmer then, with a bit of fiction on the side.

I’m guessing he was one of the Romantics – it certainly smacks of them doesn’t it?

All of the cattle and sheep would be too much trouble in a suburb I’m sure you agree. But I do run to the dog and a veg plot full of spuds and beans. So – has nurturing Murphy improved my writing life?

On the whole I would say no.

For example, he chewed up my story about someone hunting for a lost tortoise and I had to write it again, also, while I was trying to edit on the computer in the spare bedroom he did a huge poo on the landing, which he seemed very proud of and which hung around in the atmosphere for some time after, even once lots of Fabreze had been sprayed and a vanilla scented candle was burning on the desk.

1897704_10152050442158167_2055527088_nHe does like going for walks of course, and walks are good for writers. They are useful thinking time and it’s always better to do some thinking before you do the writing I find. Walking around with a dog seems less weird to passers by than ambling about on your own.

Many writers seem to have cats – they put pictures on Facebook of them sitting on their desks, stretched out over the keyboard. Cats don’t bite your ankles, they don’t stick their big wet heads in your lap and whine, they don’t bark at the door until you get them a biscuit. Unfortunately my wife is allergic to cats. I assumed she was making this up because she didn’t want one, but then we went to see a friend who had one, it sat on her knee and she went red and blotchy almost straight away. It was all she could do to croak: ‘I told you so.’

Perhaps the best thing Murphy has done for me as a writer is make me think less about writing, which is a healthy distraction. I already have plenty of those what with the kids, and the proper job and so on, but still – it offers a fresh perspective, and I suppose he is quite cute.

ImageDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

 

Literary criticism from The Simpsons

I was watching an old episode of The Simpsons the other day which had a scene set at a literary festival. As authors stood disregarded by their piles of books there was one long queue in the whole place.

John_Updike_with_Bushes_newAt the head of it was Krusty the Clown touting copies of his latest biography. He pulled back a curtain to reveal his ghost-writer – the late John Updike, esteemed literary novelist, a man acclaimed as one of the greatest writers in living memory. Krusty roundly abused Updike as a cheap hack and Updike humbly took it – happy to be earning a living churning out celebrity dross.

It was funny, perhaps a little cruel. Like all good satire it had a sliver of ice in its heart.

It made me think about the way that our culture actively discourages people from writing at all, and particularly from writing good quality books. If you want fame, success, significant financial rewards then, first of all, you are better off not writing books of any kind and, if you must write, then you are better to write what sells which is celeb biogs, mechanically written romance novels, self-help books, genre pot-boilers and the rest.

Heaven knows, there is a place for all of these, and if people want to read them then well, I’m just glad they are reading something in this age when not reading books at all seems to have become the default setting. And I also think that there are writers producing all of the above types of book who do so professionally and well and produce great reads.

But writing surely should also be an art form where the aim isn’t just to make money but to produce good work. Work which resonates and adds something to the cultural debate and has a chance of lasting. That’s the part I fear we are losing in the modern age.

I have said before that one of the big surprises for me since my book was published is how many writers there are out there. How the explosion in self-publishing has lead to a huge surge in the number of people producing books. The ought to be a good thing, and in many ways of course it is.

But I think we should be concerned about the quality of a lot of what is being created and, in some cases (not all) about the mind-set that has gone into creating it. So often I hear writers boasting about how many words they have been able to churn out that day on their ‘WIP’ (the jargon shorthand some have started using for work in progress). Or how many books they have managed to produce already in their series of genre novels. The assumption seems to be that more is better, that quicker is better. There is never once a mention of quality, never a word about the joy of writing well.

The whole thing has the feel of a mass production line – a literary McDonalds, a fast-food for the soul. Is this really what we want to be as authors?

What I believe is this – if our dream is to write then that’s fantastic but please, let’s do ourselves, the reader, the world, a favour and set our sights as high as they will possibly go. There are so many bad books around and more coming every day. Why add to that pile? Society makes it difficult enough for writers without us adding to the problem.

Be the best writer you can be – that’s all anyone can ask of you, all you can ask of yourself.

ImageDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

 

Elmore Leonard’s rules

682px-Elmore_LeonardThe late great crime writer Elmore Leonard had ten basic rules for writing fiction, which I think all writers should be aware of, whatever kind of fiction they write. Here are Leonard’s rules:

1. Never open a book with the weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

I think if writers at least bear these in mind as they are working they will usually be doing themselves and their readers a favour.

They are a curious mixture on the face of it aren’t they? Some are pretty much standard advice – how often do we hear the tip to avoid adverbs where possible? Others strike you as quirky on first reading them. ‘Never open a book with the weather’ being a good example.

I think with this weather one Leonard is offering us two things. Firstly he is helping us avoid cliché. The all-time worst opening line of a book is often held to be ‘It was a dark and stormy night,’ the first line of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford. It is so often mocked that there is even a Bulwer-Lytton competition now for the worst opening line you can come up with.

So best avoided for that reason alone. But I think Leonard is also encouraging us to get to the point and, more importantly, to get to the people. Novels are so often more a success at describing emotions than they are at describing things. I’ve mentioned before how Yann Martel describes the shipwreck in Life of Pi in one line ‘The boat sank.’

I have a weather scene – a storm, near the start of Song of the Sea God. But it’s not right at the start. The opening belongs to the narrator Bes who is under the impression he is dead, but turns out to be mistaken. Somehow I thought it best to talk about people first and save the wind and rain for later.

The tip to avoid exclamation marks also seems a little quirky. But it’s advice I know well, because we were also given it as young newspaper reporters by wise old sub-editors. In newspapers, exclamation marks are often used in headlines (we had a rude name for them used in this way, referencing a dog’s anatomy, but I will not include that on this ‘safe for work’ blog). But they are much less often used in copy. Where, I remember an old hand on the subs’ desk telling me: “They simply serve to highlight the wide-eyed incredulity of the reporter.”

In fiction they simply serve to show the author thinks something is exciting or amusing, and that the reader ought to think so too. But the reader will make up her own mind – exclamation point or not!

Perhaps Leonard’s key rule is the last one – leave out the parts readers tend to skip. We would all like to do that wouldn’t we? Leonard’s feeling was they don’t tend to skip dialogue – and he was a genius at that. This point is advice about rewriting I suppose – cut out the bits which are not good, leave the bits which are.

So there they are, Elmore Leonard’s rules – food for thought for all of us I think.

ImageDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.